September 12, 2012
In a 301-118 vote, the House of Representatives, today, passed an amendment that would extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law allowing government monitoring of American communications in efforts to allegedly thwart foreign spies and terrorists.
Originally set to expire at the end of 2012, the bill’s extension would give the highly-secretive US Intelligence gathering National Security Administration nearly unlimited communication surveillance capabilities, allowing the snooping of emails and phone conversations until 2017.
Calling it a “very, very important source of valuable information,” General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Robert Litt defended the electronic spying powers contained within FISA.
“I will lose an incredibly valuable source of foreign intelligence information that I think it’s fair to say has been critical to protecting our country over the last few years,” Litt told reporters Tuesday. “”I know of specific incidences both involving terrorist acts and involving other kinds of threats where we have been able to thwart them or gain significant insight into them as a result of this collection activity.”
Litt refused to estimate the amount of communications that had been intercepted so far, saying that to do so would be “impractical,” likely due to the high volume of data collected, and would put a strain on US intelligence. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon sees this as unacceptable, stating “If a member of the intelligence committee doesn’t know how many Americans have had their communications collected under the FISA authorities, then the possibility is that it could be quite large – nobody knows.”
Sen. Wyden and Colorado Senator Mark Udall have contested passage of the bill in the Senate because it contains what Wyden says is a loophole that would be used to “circumvent traditional warrant protections and search for the communications of a potentially large number of Americans.”
Sen. Wyden, in June, placed a “hold” on the measure until tougher guidelines are in place to protect Americans’ rights once FISA is extended, including one amendment that would force the Inspectors General at the Justice Department and National Intelligence Director’s office to give a “rough estimate” of the number of communications intercepted to keep the agency in check.
Sen. Wyden says the failure to provide at least an estimate of the extent of American surveillance, at the very least, presents a danger to civil liberties: “My concern has long been that the challenge is to ensure that we are protecting the well-being of our people – and there are certainly threats overseas – while at the same time standing up for those extraordinarily important values of liberty, and that we strike the balance…And my concern is that there is a substantial amount of evidence that that balance is not being struck.”
The bill still has to go before the Senate prior to heading to “president” Obama’s desk.
It’s naive to think things would be different under Romney as he has, in the past, said that if he were president, he would continue to develop fusion centers “and other innovative systems to collect and systematically analyze information about domestic activities.”